July 26, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
The stories in Understories are clever and imaginative, and have earned Tim Horvath comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Kevin Brockmeier. This stunning collection revels in wordplay and inventiveness, and is one of the finest short fiction collections I have read all year.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the collection:
"Taken as a complete work, "Understories" is a remarkable collection, with pitch-perfect leaps of imagination side-by-side with characters struggling in wholly recognizable ways."
Anja Lechner and Dino Saluzzi - "Ojos Negros" from Ojos Negros
This is Dino Saluzzi on the bandoneon and Anja Lechner on the cello; Saluzzi cites a Borges story in the liner notes. My daughter drifted off to sleep to this music every night for a long time, so its surges and dips of melody meant that it was time for me to rev up and get cranking at the keyboard. As for Borges, the music does feel a bit like a labyrinth, but it's a soft, sinuous labyrinth made of silk scarves and a band playing tango somewhere around a corner just past what we can see. I love Borges, but this is more sensual and less dense and allusive and intellectual. I'd say Borges has been an influence on my stories, and I'm not shy about dropping the B-word in "Circulation," but I'd like to think they are more inspired by some of Borges's preoccupations—libraries, infinity, obscure realms of knowledge—than truly Borgesian. Similarly with Calvino—while a couple of the early "Urban Planning" pieces pay homage to Invisible Cities, eventually I wanted to veer as far away from Calvino's cities as possible. Anyway, this music is the perfect segue from day to night, from a waking daughter into a newly-awakened father with fatigued but restless fingers.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! - "In this Home on Ice" from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
I love this whole album to death. I like a band I can't quite figure out, and these guys fit the bill. Sometimes they sound like the Cars and the Violent Femmes and Billy Bragg all playing the same song on the same stage, like either some relatively normal dream or weird benefit concert. This song, coming near the end, is, for them, pretty simple and straightforward, and for me it evokes a frozen lake and midwinter gleam in a place where the winter just lasts forever. Since a summer I wound up in Alaska after making plans to be in New Mexico that shifted at the last minute, I've been drawn to colder climes. If Gauguin had moved to Greenland instead of Tahiti, as he does in "Altered Native," I imagine him shrugging off society, scrapping together an igloo, adapting to subzero temperatures and becoming Gauguin anyway. So when the singer sings, "the ravaged cabbage drifts on dark red skies / and it looks so nice /gee it looks so nice," I see the painter, having ditched Paris and bet it all on Greenland, blowing on his fists and muttering these words to himself, trying to convince himself they're true.
Beck - "Derelict" from Odeley
I had someone very much like Beck in mind when I pictured Wes, the projectionist who is the main character in "the City in the Light of Moths." I wanted a character who was kind of tall and gangly and a bit goofy and scruffy, who happened to be the projectionist equivalent of a great dj, one who would seek out vintage equipment, who might dig through canisters and find old footage and dice and splice and somehow make it all sound organic. At one point Wes screens one film on top of another. I wish there were projectionist djs who worked parties—maybe there are?
Elvis Costello - "Complicated Shadows" from All this Useless Beauty
"The Discipline of Shadows" is about umbrologists, people who are obsessed with shadows to the point that they become considerably more interested in them than the things and folks that cast them. To my chagrin, Umbrology doesn't exist, yet it should—the world is poorer without it. Without getting too heavily into self-interpretation, in the story and in general, too, shadows make a good stand-in for the overlooked, marginalized, oppressed. Maybe ever since Plato's Myth of the Cave, in which they are derided as mere illusions, shadows have been a handy way to describe something diminished (one is a "shadow of her former self," etc.). And dating at least to Ellison's Shadow and Act and right up to the work of Kara Walker, shadows have been a leitmotif in African-American art and storytelling as well. This song alludes to race only obliquely—Costello tosses out the line "Sometimes justice you will find / is just dumb not colour-blind"—but mostly seems to be about the ambiguities of morality in general. Most of all I love his idea that shadows are complicated—that they can't simply be written off, can't be trifled with, and that a self-respecting history can't be written without them.
The Velvet Underground - "Hey Mr. Rain" from VU
"Hey Mr. Rain"-When I was a kid I can remember listening to the two versions of this song, and it was my first pre-YouTube glimpse of the idea that there could be two versions that were both "right." Each one invokes the coming storm but in a slightly different way. In one of the stories in my collection, a mayor vows to do away with rain, which is foolish and yet not somehow implausible, because in so many ways we do try to do away with unpredictability, chaos, wet. The voice Lou Reed conjures up in "Hey Mr. Rain" is like this guy's worst nightmare—not only does he want it to rain, not only is he begging for it, but he seems to believe that the very act of "staring up at the sky" will bring it on. John Cale's violin brings on the actual rain, or else the desirer is in such a frenzy that he no longer knows it isn't raining—it's raining for him. Either way it's a cool effect, and when I hear the second version it feels like a memory of the first, which is another cool effect.
Minutemen - "#1 Hit Song" from Double Nickels on the Dime
There are a handful of stories in the collection—they literally fit in the palm of the hand--that remind me of Minutemen songs—short, thwacky, flirting with absurdity, but, one hopes, possessing a logic of their own. Several of the two or three pagers are like this. What I love about the Minutemen is what I love in the best flash fiction, the way they subvert expectations in a matter of words/chords/minutes (usually two or less), their sublime way of making things gel, their staccato wit, the way they tinker endlessly with form. Or maybe you'd want to call them poets, formal poets who leap from villanelle to haiku to sonnet to form upon form of their own idiosyncratic invention without missing a beat. There are some pieces in Understories I'd consider more prose poems than stories, and they're the ones that take about a minute to read.
Max Roach and Cecil Taylor - Historic Concert
"Tilkez" is told from the standpoint of a computer programmer who becomes wrenchingly jealous of the endangered language that his girlfriend, a linguist, is studying. To me the story is a riff in part on the relationship between language and reality, which is of course a huge debate, especially the question of how much is in the brain and how much is shaped by culture. We're riding a culture wave currently, I think, but the tide shifts regularly. Max Roach is a guy who seems to have mastered many musical tongues, while Cecil Taylor is a guy who basically invented his own, and when they play simultaneously as they do here you get a crazy collision of the two. Around an hour in, Roach starts playing the drums like a piano and Taylor starts playing the piano in the manner of Roach's drumming. They mimic one another so well that you start to actually believe the piano is a percussion instrument, which of course you know it is, but, like, believe it. Viscerally. And you start to believe that drums have all of the tonal and melodic range of a piano. It's this crossover moment that I love most, and without hyperbole I can say that I think it's one of the great moments in musical history. It's a moment of sheer unrestrained empathy. And that's all the narrator really wants—he'll seek it out through sex, through exhaustively sifting through his relationship, and finally, through language. He wants to leap through language into her body, and from there through her body into her soul, or at least that's what he's told himself.
Kristin Hersh - "Four Days in Spain" from Sunny Border Blue
This whole album is fairly perfectamundo, but I chose this song because it starts one way and then turns into a totally different song midstream. I was thinking that some of my stories work similarly, make you think you're reading one story when in fact you were reading another all along. It's one of the meanings of the title, Understories, I suppose. One of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain," does this mightily, and I admire songs that can pull it off as well. It's not just a matter of splicing one song onto another, though; it has to feel as though the metamorphosis comes naturally. I'm pretty sure classical music does this all the time, and if I was more of an expert on that, I'm sure I could have cited one of innumerable examples, but instead we'll just go with this gorgeous, lush little number that contemplates and reminisces and finally lurches into action and doesn't look back.
Meat Puppets - "New Gods" from Meat Puppets II
No soundtrack of mine, literary or otherwise, would be complete without a Meat Puppets tune. They're among my biggest influences, period. "The Conversations" winds up somewhere in the Sonora with a philosopher who argues for the imminence of alien beings amidst us. "New Gods" is itself like some deranged reenactment of a conversation in a restaurant in Mexico in which we are told "not to drink the water/not to touch the food" in an onslaught of advice and then told "Remember that we told you." This song will have to stand in here for the entirety of Meat Puppets II, which has etched buttes and mesas all over my brain. I might've equally chosen "We're Here," which also seems to announce the imminence of otherworldly beings, stating, "You’re not alone the way you thought/Things have changed, now we are here," or the evocatively wordless "Aurora Borealis," or, if it wasn't already so well known thanks to Nirvana, "Plateau," which points us to both Greenland and Mexico.
They Might Be Giants - "Bed" from No!
This brings us full circle, since I started out by talking about the music my daughter would nod off to. "Bed" is in the great They Might Be Giants tradition of smart songs aimed at people of all ages. It's kid-friendly, but parents are also brought in on the joke, since it is a bedtime song and does the opposite of what such a song should do, basically celebrating hyperactivity and cacophony. It's a wonderful, zany, romp. And it's got the energy that I was going for in "Runaroundandscreamalot!", whose name tips you off pretty blatantly to that aim. It's a story about grownups who might have kids but haven't grown up themselves, and so further it's about how we never quite stop being kids in some fundamental way, some way that is individual and biological and societal.
Finally, bands and musicians not mentioned above whose aesthetics have pervasively influenced my own: Sonic Youth, Sun City Girls, Cul de Sac, Can, Hannah Marcus, Giant Sand, Steve Wynn, Dirty Projectors, TV On the Radio, Husker Du, and Conlon Nancarrow.
Tim Horvath and Understories links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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